The Emergence of China in the Middle East

By Chen, James | Strategic Forum, December 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Emergence of China in the Middle East


Chen, James, Strategic Forum


China in the Middle East

During the 9th century, Arab traders regularly plied lucrative maritime routes that connected the Persian Gulf to southern China by way of the Indian Ocean. This commercial activity, which mostly involved jade, silk, and other luxury goods, went on for centuries and became part of what is now known as the Silk Road. In some ways, the world is now witnessing a restoration of that ancient trading relationship between two civilizations--except that oil and consumer goods have replaced jade and silk.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presided over one of the most remarkable economic expansions in modern history. From 1990 to 2000, gross domestic product (GDP) grew an average of 9 percent each year, lifting millions out of poverty. (1) In order to sustain this growth and continue providing jobs to the growing number of citizens entering the labor market, the government not only needed to find new markets for Chinese exports; it also had to secure additional energy sources to keep factories and the economy as a whole running. This led the CCP to adopt the "going out" (zou chu qu) strategy in 2001. This strategy called for expanding investment activity outward, taking on major foreign construction projects, and developing overseas natural resource supplies. The Middle East, with its unexploited emerging markets and abundance of oil, caught the attention of the Chinese government. Prior to 2001, China maintained a limited presence in the region, and its activities consisted mainly of oil purchases and arms sales. Since then, however, an increasing number of Chinese officials, businesspeople, and private citizens have answered the call to "go out" and have streamed into the Middle East.

China's emergence as a major actor is already impacting the U.S. strategic position in the region. For example, U.S. attempts to craft sanctions on Iran during the summer of 2010 were complicated by China's opposition, partly due to sizable Chinese energy investments in Iran. The opposition was withdrawn only after a revised United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution weakened the impact of punitive measures. U.S. officials also suspect that, despite the passage of the resolution, the Chinese have engaged in dealings with Iran that further undermine the effectiveness of the sanctions. (2) For this and other regional issues, the United States will have to increasingly take Chinese interests and influence into account in developing its Middle Eastern policy.

Facets of China's Presence

Whether measured in terms of economics, security, diplomacy, or soft power, China has become increasingly active in the Middle East over the last decade. Activity and increased presence do not automatically translate into actual influence (especially if defined in terms of getting other countries to take costly actions they would not otherwise undertake). However, China's expanding interactions with Middle Eastern countries may eventually expand common interests or create dependent relations that increase Beijing's regional influence.

Growing Economic Interdependence. One of the most obvious indicators of China's increasing involvement in the Middle East is the explosion in economic activity. From 2005 to 2009, the total trade volume between China and the Middle East rose 87 percent, to $100 billion, and the Middle East's exports to China grew by 25 percent. (3) In contrast, exports from the Middle East to the United States declined by 45 percent during that same period. As a result, China surpassed the United States last year as the top destination for the Middle East's exports. On the other side of the trading ledger, China is also the top source of the region's imports, most of them being low-cost household goods that increase purchasing power for the average Middle East consumer. For example, a greater number of Egyptians are now able to afford cars due to the availability of inexpensive Chinese models, (4) and in Gaza, residents enduring the Israeli blockade have come to depend upon cheap Chinese goods in their day-to-day lives. …

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